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04 July 2012

New BBC head 'will want to engage with faith communities'

New BBC head 'will want to engage with faith communities'

Andrew Graystone, director of the Church and Media Network, writes about George Entwistle's appointment today as director general of the BBC.

The job of BBC director general is a strange one. The DG oversees a budget of £4.7 billion and leads a staff of 20,000. He is also the corporation's editor-in-chief, which means he is ultimately responsible for thousands of hours of output every year on TV, national and local radio and the internet. It must feel like an awesome responsibility. But there's never any shortage of journalists, critics and license-fee payers who feel sure they could do it better.

I'm personally delighted that in September the job of director general will pass to George Entwistle. The BBC certainly hasn't appointed a lightweight. This appointment is an indication that the BBC has no intention of 'dumbing down'.George has been a news producer most of his career. He's had responsibility for flagship factual programmes like Newsnight and Panorama and serious TV channels including BBC4. More recently he's been the BBC's head of vision – the department of the BBC that produces all its TV output. In that context he's had to oversee cuts, and has flattened the previously unwieldy commissioning process.

I've got to know George a little over the past few years in my role as director of the Church and Media Network. I also manage the BBC's inter-faith liaison panel, grandly known as the Standing Conference on Religion and Belief. I know that he is committed to religion as an important part of the BBC's broadcasting mix. I also know from his generous engagement with the Standing Conference that he wants to engage constructively with the UK's faith communities. I've come to like and respect George, and the fact that he has taken on this impossible job seems to me to be very good news.

As you might expect George has a very clear journalistic mind and a serious intelligence. However he remains a likeable, approachable man. It's hard to imagine him having many enemies. But he must know that the job attracts criticism, not least from those who believe that the concept of a license-fee funded broadcaster is fundamentally flawed.There are plenty who feel that the BBC has an undue dominance in the broadcasting market, and that (in James Murdoch's words) the only guarantor of independence is profit.Entwistle will have to demonstrate that the BBC's cultural dominance is justified by the quality and balance of its output.

He will also have to navigate the digital jungle. Communications technology is changing so fast that if Entwistle stays in post for five years he will find himself leading a corporation that is hardly recognisable from the one he takes on today. We will be watching content on different devices, paying for it in different ways and using skills and technologies to make it that don't yet exist.Every significant decision George faces will be made in this context of uncertainty.

The BBC isn't perfect. It has limitations, and it makes mistakes. Over the coming years some of those mistakes will land with a thud on George Entwistle's trendy glass desk. But for all its faults I believe that Christians need to cherish the BBC. Programme-makers often don't 'get' Christianity.But the BBC gets it much better than any of its rivals. So our default mode should be to support the BBC and encourage it. It is a unique institution with values that overlap very substantially with those of the Christian gospel. For that reason I hope George Entwistle will come to see the Christian community as friends; frank and occasionally critical, but yoked together for the good of our culture and our country.

George will celebrate his 50th birthday this weekend with his wife of 20 years and their two teenage children. They need and deserve our support and prayers.